Well, it’s been some time since I’ve posted anything serious. Now that I’m studying for exams though I naturally turn back to something distracting while hopefully being somewhat productive in this distraction.
I’ve been watching videos from the Beyond Belief conference at the Salk Institute over the past week or two. One word: Yes. That yes is a fully positive endorsement of this conference and a hope for many more to come. That said, I’ve been searching for post-BB commentary and came across an opinion piece by Sam Harris. The wonderful exchange between Scott Atran, Sam Harris, and others on Edge not included (and highly recommended), there seems to be a general glossing over of some thoughtful commentary. Glossing turned to spin in Harris’ piece posted as an op-ed on the Council for Secular Humanism website. Let’s take a closer look:
Recently, I attended a three-day conference at the Salk Institute, organized by The Science Network. The conference was titled, Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival and was conducted as a town-hall meeting before an audience of invited guests. Speakers included Steven Weinberg, Harold Kroto, Richard Dawkins, and many other scientists and philosophers who have been, and remain, energetic opponents of religious unreason. And then there were other esteemed participants and audience members who proved themselves to be eager purveyors of American-style religious bewilderment.
And the spin begins…
It was a room full of bright, scientifically literate people—molecular biologists, anthropologists, physicists, engineers—and yet, three days were insufficient to force agreement on whether or not there is any conflict between religion and science.
You mean, after hundreds of years of debate on science and religion, this three day conference didn’t solve the relationship between these two massive enterprises? You’re kidding!
While at Salk, I witnessed scientists giving voice to some of the most unctuous religious apologies I have ever heard. It is one thing to be told that the pope is a great champion of reason and that his opposition to embryonic stem cell research has nothing to do with religious dogmatism; it is quite another to be told this by a Stanford physician who sits on the President’s Council on Bioethics.
Oh, what’s that in your pocket Sam? Oh yes, it’s a bunch of embryonic stem cells. You love to whip those little guys out whenever you have a chance. Mr. Harris, your characterization of Dr. William Hurlbut’s comments (and note that you only named people on your side of the argument throughout this piece) is quite inappropriate Hurlbut’s comments did not center on stem cells. Hurlbut’s comments were in the spirit of having an understanding of any given dogma before criticizing it. And not just a read through with untutored eyes. A skeptical read, but a read open to more than a literal interpretation. This seems to me something you would want more people, believers or not, to do. Further, for someone seemingly so familiar with Buddhist traditions, it seems rather odd that the distinction between esoteric (Vajrayana) and exoteric (Mahayana) texts and practices has not even popped up in the midst of discussion. And what about the ideals of a Bodhisattva? Prajna (wisdom), virya (warriors spirit), and upaya (skillful means)? Mr. Harris’ argument certainly shows plenty of warriors spirit but seems to be lacking skillful means.
Over the course of the meeting, I had the pleasure of hearing that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were examples of secularism run amok,
No. Examples of dogmas as or more deadly than religion.
that the doctrines of martyrdom and jihad have nothing whatsoever to do with Muslim terrorism,
Just watch the back-and-forth between Sam Harris and Scott Atran to see that this is not so.
that people can never be argued out of their beliefs because we live in an irrational world,
Another hyperbolic comment! Scott Atran’s comments were to the effect of dealing with rationality in a fundamentally irrational world, not that it is a lost cause to challenge people on contentious beliefs.
that science has made no important contributions to our ethical lives,
Stop Sam. Stop! Listen to yourself! Anyone who cares enough to know what was actually said can download the entire conference. Doing so, and particularly after watching Susan Neiman’s talk, one sees a different ethos. One that welcomes empirical data and wishes for more empiricism in informing ethical and moral decision making but contending that this tells us what ‘is’ while the ‘ought to be’ remains impoverished by such means. Far from being one sided, this was then challenged by the Churchlands with thoughtful criticism. It’s a great exchange of ideas, apparently so great Mr. Harris has kindly cherry picked it from his memory and squashed it on the floor.
and that it is not the job of scientists “to take away people’s hope”—all from atheist scientists, happily trading in the most abject and paralyzing shibboleths of academic political correctness.
Heck, even Richard Dawkins said he would not challenge someone’s beliefs on their deathbed…
There were several moments during our panel discussions that brought to mind the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—people who looked like scientists, had published as scientists, and would soon be returning to their labs nevertheless gave voice to the alien hiss of religious lunacy at the slightest prodding. In case anyone thought that the front lines in our culture wars could be found at the entrance to a megachurch, I am here to report that we still have considerable work to do in a nearby trench.
For all the frustration I felt at this meeting,
…receiving thoughtful criticism of your arguments, being called on repeated arguments and abuse of language…
it seemed like the perfect forum in which to resolve the centuries-old collision between reason and faith. If reputable scientists cannot be made to agree that there are important intellectual and moral differences between knowing something and pretending to know it, we are doomed.
Argumentum ad Bacculum.
Happily, the meeting at Salk will be convened again next fall. Perhaps then it will be possible to rule out the Virgin Birth of Jesus as a valid scientific hypothesis.
Sam continues, giving four questions he’d like answered. Unfortunately I do not have the time to go through this and formulate a thoughtful response. Biochemistry awaits…
I’ll finish off by pointing out that as much as Sam Harris argues for corrections of ‘problems of discourse’ and ‘intellectual honesty’ during the Beyond Belief conference, he seems to take these concerns off like a coat as he takes the time to write pieces like this which perpetuate the problem of discourse and veil what actually happened. Despite this opinion piece though, Harris made some very good points at the Salk. There is every reason to challenge beliefs that can reduce someone to resembling something like this. And for all the heavy arguments and bruised egos, it is quite stimulating to watch or listen to the proceedings, particularly Neil de Grasse Tyson’s equally inspiring and hilarious lecture, and I would encourage anyone who has made it this far in the post to check it out. Certainly don’t take this post as the word on the conference, and equally so, do not take Mr. Harris’ opinion as a full synopsis either.
P.S. Has anyone found any articles by Sam Harris in a scholarly science journal or a poster at a conference? I can’t seem to find any.